Fallen icon still has fans eating out of his hand
Something extraordinary is happening here in South Africa 141 days before the opening of the World Cup. It is Diego Maradona.
There may still be major problems, security questions, worries about ticket sales, but suddenly they seem less oppressive. Maradona is, more full-heartedly than anyone could have imagined in his circumstances, moving among the people.
He may be a walking time bomb but his meaning, here at least, goes beyond a lifetime of a glory so repeatedly threatened by self-destruction. At a vital moment in the progress towards another World Cup, Maradona is a potent reminder of what the great tournament means. It is the enduring glamour of the most magnetic of footballers and, astonishingly when you retrace the turmoil of his last few years, Maradona still carries it with every stride.
He has come to check Argentina's state-of-the-art training headquarters at Pretoria University's High Performance Centre, his first official duty since emerging from his two-month Fifa ban for launching a "lewd" attack on his critics.
But in his messianic demeanour and a charisma which we have long known is proofed against all but fatal disaster he is having the effect of an electric current.
He is, for a little while at least, again the football legend who believes he owns the world.
It is not just the kids he is embracing in great armfuls with cries of "hola, muchachos" -- hello, mischievous boys -- who have fallen so quickly for his aura.
Mark Fish, who led South Africa to the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations and won 62 caps in a career which included spells at Lazio, Bolton Wanderers and Charlton Athletic, is especially susceptible to the Maradona charm offensive.
Fish announces to Maradona that whenever there are arguments about who was the greatest player of them all he always insists the debate is fraudulent. "I tell them that there is no doubt about it, you proved you were the greatest when you won the World Cup in 1986," he says. Fish's reward is a bear-hug and a personal viewing of the tattoos of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro that decorate Maradona's right arm and left leg.
While doubts remain high that Maradona will be able to effectively control his erratic nature through the pressures of a World Cup, and defy the widespread conviction, in Argentina as much as the rest of the world, that his reign can only end in more rage and disillusionment, there is no doubt that his return to business is compelling theatre.
Yesterday he visited the township of Garankuwa north of here and was again the Pied Piper. It is as though he is seeing in the young Africans a reflection of his own youth, a time when sometimes the odds seemed impossible.
Certainly it is reasonable to believe that somewhere like Garankuwa provokes memories of Villa Fiorito, a shanty town on the southern edge of Buenos Aires where, as a 10-year-old, he was rescued from a sewage pit by a watchful uncle.
He still carries much of the weight a gastric bypass was designed to remove but, at 49, he looks remarkably well in his blue Argentina shirt and shorts, his cut-back shades and the huge silver cross that dangles from his neck. Certainly a visitor from another planet wouldn't guess how many times he had been reported dead, how many times the grandeur of his football had been swamped by crisis and shame.
At 49, he is saying that as long he lives, he will be the centre of any stage he chooses to visit, a conclusion that was scarcely harmed by the decision of Argentina to give him the chance to end the years of national frustration that have followed his epic performances in delivering Argentina's last World Cup in Mexico City in 1986.
"It is a difficult curse we have to beat," he says, "but we have great players and pride and we have come through a lot to be here. I love to be in South Africa and the training facilities are all I want, they are secure and they are exclusive and they will allow us to do our work."
He doesn't rate the Capello-transformed England among the most serious of his threats. "They are a strong team, of course, but I place them in the second rank of favourites. The first rank is occupied by Brazil and Spain and Germany. They are the teams I most fear but I do not fear them too much."
Was it unfair of Fifa to ban him for his tirade against the sportswriters and broadcasters he has long seen as his tormentors? He gives a tight, small smile and says he cannot discuss it.
"I do not want to draw attention to myself. I want to do my work."
Today he is meeting with Toby Sutcliffe, the director of the High Performance Centre which impressed England manager Capello to the point where he wanted to switch from Rustenburg and its problematical pitches an hour up the road north-east of here. "England came here," said Sutcliffe. "But Argentina were the first to confirm. Tomorrow we will go through details, but Maradona seems very happy indeed. Naturally, we are pleased Argentina are coming here. You can see the effect Mr Maradona is having on our young people."
The University first team, who compete on the second rung of South African football, and the juniors were all handed Argentina caps by Maradona. Each received a hug and a few words. It was a bravura performance by a man not famous for the efficiency of his public relations. But maybe when you are Maradona, and you're feeling good, there will always be a winning device. It is to simply call up the best of yourself.
Fish is clearly moved by the occasion. "You know for most of these kids Maradona is only a name but you can see that they sense what he was. I know of course, older people do, and if you love football in this country you have to be a little sad so much brilliant potential has been lost over the years.
"I do not know how we will do in the tournament, I do not know if the training camp planned by the coach (1994 World Cup winner Carlos Alberto Parreira) in Brazil will work, but we can hope that having the tournament here will move things along in the right direction.
"In the past there have been false steps, some of the money has gone in the wrong pockets, but there is no doubt about the football potential in this country. Perhaps the kind of impact Diego Maradona has made today will remind the people who run the game here the value of providing a little more leadership."
It is the kind of role that has rarely been earmarked for Maradona, a man who has so often abused both his present and his past.
However, you can see a little of what Fish means when the boys gather around as Maradona spends time on the touchline of the training field where Hristo Stoichkov, the former virtuoso of Bulgaria, coaches the Premier League Sundowns, the richest club in South Africa. They are known as the Brazilians and wear the yellow and blue.
Maradona puckishly complains about the allegiance of Stoichkov's team. Everybody laughs. The tears may follow, soon enough, but for the moment the laughter, like the survival of its author, is surely a kind of miracle. (© Independent News Service)